We catch up with a former iDJ cover star, eight years down the line...
No two Kissy Sell Out interviews will ever read the same. Since emerging into the dancefloor consciousness in 2006, his life has been such a fizzy blur of unique experiments, endeavours and encounters, it would be nigh-on impossible to hear the same story from him twice.
From debating with Stephen Fry at Cambridge University, to working with Bear Grylls, to composing music for the 2012 Olympics, his CV is a dizzying maze of experiences and accolades that includes a degree in astrophysics (which he studied between studio sessions, tours and radio shows) and the fact he’s been subject of a general knowledge question in The Chase.
There are also his many well-known musical achievements: how he became one of the most leftfield figures in the mid-2000s electro movement. How his 2011 album Wild Romance was made purely with classical instruments. How his six-year tenure at Radio 1 and his label San City High were pivotal platforms for major league talents such as Zeds Dead, Dillon Francis, Nero, Jack Beats and Gorgon City’s Foamo. Or, more recently, how he’s launched a new label Stepper Man and started exploring a more stripped-back, floor-focused bassline sound.
As with everything Kissy (real name Thomas Bisdeel) does, there are no half measures with Stepper Man. Launched as recently as January, his new label will already be 13 releases deep next month. Writhing around the murky badlands between UKG, 4x4 and house, the label flexes skills from the likes of bassline veteran Wittyboy, rising newcomers PVC and Official Nancie, OG party pirates Hoxton Whores and Hungarian heavyweight Sirmo. But the remit and roster - including his own productions as both Kissy Sell Out and his more hench KSO guise - are only half the story. What Stepper Man represents is a new chapter for Kissy and a change of perspective on what he does and how he does it.
Kissy was last featured in iDJ in January 2009, when we caught him - a hyperactive, excitable 20-something staring down the barrels of a non-stop international schedule - at one of the most turbo-charged chapters in his career. He’d not long been promoted from Radio 1’s In New DJs We Trust series to his own weekly Kissy Klub show, he’d just set up his live band and was preparing to release his largely song-based debut album Youth.
Now, a little older but just as hyperactive and excitable, he stares down the barrel of experience and is able to look back on life’s fizzy blur-so-far and really understand how he’s got here, how can remain creatively inspired and how he can continue to experiment, endeavour and ensure that no two Kissy Sell Out records will ever sound the same….
Let’s chat Stepper Man. Was there a particular trigger or epiphany that started it?
"I guess it’s down to my signature and approach. I make music that makes me excited - I always have. But I had this moment last year, when I was playing some new tunes I’d done - which I’m still really happy with, I have to say - and I started to wonder who played them apart from me? I wanted to try out some new sounds. There’s a lot of baggage that comes with the name Kissy Sell Out, so I thought it would be nice to have a bit more freedom and release stuff as a different project."
Like a mystery alias?
"I didn’t want to do that either; I didn’t want to trick people. I’m too honest! One night the name Stepper Man came to me, and I knew that I didn’t want to start a new name from scratch, but that it would be a kick-arse name for a label. So I started to develop the sound and went through a lot of demos and ideas until I found the sound I was looking for in Dream Chaser, a track I’d never have done as Kissy Sell Out. Then I did Toke On Life, then Super Tough and these all led to the body of work I’ve been releasing this year. Basically, tracks I’d play in my DJ set. That’s what Stepper Man is about - peak DJ set material."
Nice to have no pressure there. Music strictly for the dance and going back to your roots and having fun perhaps?
"Yeah! Reinjecting a bit of passion - I’ve been doing this for nearly 12 years, but I’m still just as excited. My sound and production have come a long way and bringing it under the same moniker isn’t a helpful thing to do. I think I got into a rut where I was making music that was purely Kissy Sell Out signature music, and not moving on from that.
"I wanted to go a bit heavier, too. Bass has always been a big part of my sound - I’ve always said I’m basically a speed garage DJ. And my favourite part about the recent house revival were the garage influences and basslines."
You could feel that on the track Always with Robert Owens. Was that the last San City release?
"No, This Is Our Night was the last track, which was also on that type of house tip. But I had to be honest with myself. I’m never going to be that guy who plays five-minute-long house tracks. Going back to bassline sounds was much more natural direction for me."
So is San City parked, or closed forever?
"Parked. I think. Who knows? If electro comes back then San City High might be relevant, but for now it’s all about Stepper Man."
Let’s go back to the last time you were in iDJ. What are your memories of that chapter in your life?
"I just remember being scared and nervous! Everything was moving so bloody quickly - I’d only just graduated from university and I was working on remixes for Mark Ronson, Calvin Harris, Human League and Sugababes in my Mum’s house! I was on the iDJ cover with my live band, which was an incredible experience: it turned me into a frontman and broke me as a live musician. It was also a very difficult time as I was working with major labels."
You eluded to "complications" at the time…
"I was eternally conflicted. They were asking me to work with songwriters but I never claimed to want to write songs in that way.
"I remember they asked me to do a Chromeo remix. I’m a big fan, and I asked if I could remix Momma’s Boy and they told me I had to remix Fancy Footwork, which had already been remixed really well by a lot of people. So I went ahead and did the most bonkers remix I could. I remember playing it to the label and they said, ‘Why can’t you do that on the album?’ and I thought ‘Well, perhaps if you weren’t trying to hook me up with Britney Spears’ songwriter than maybe I would have!’
"I listened to Youth the other day and it’s better than I remembered. There are some very pure ideas in among it all. It was a different time wasn’t it? Indie bands had a big influence, live music was integrating into dance music more."
It was a different world! In that feature, you talked about admiring risk takers. Do you think we’re in a risk-averse landscape now?
"Definitely. There's a lot of cool stuff happening but it takes a lot longer to find those real standout ‘wow’ tunes now. Which is a shame: taking a risk helps you stand out and is often the wave that pushes you over into people’s consciousness. What’s great with Stepper Man is that, as a totally digital label, I can take more risks and sling stuff out straight away and see what people think - no waiting around nonsense like I’ve had to do with other labels, or with San City to a degree."
Yeah, you can test the water. You called it baggage earlier, but over 12 years you’ve built a strong fanbase who can give you that reaction...
"Yeah... although I’m not about to shock people too much with drastic changes in direction. There won’t be a Kissy Sell Out soulful house tune any time soon, there’s always going to be an edge in whatever I do. I like that moment when you play a tune to someone and they say, 'Wow! What’s that?’ That’s what I strive for. You can really feel it when people are like, ‘It’s good but not quite wow’."
But surely that’s so subjective?
"No, I mean technical stuff or structure. Like a vocal going on too long, or a breakdown or drop not quite working. Or when you have a big build-up and there are two extra bars before the drop: when you’re DJing to big crowds, you see this false start and the crowd get confused."
But I love that false-start thing! Old drum & bass records would get me every time!
"Oh yeah... you know, I love a lot of those old Urban Takeover records. Guys like Aphrodite and Mickey Finn have been a huge inspiration. I love that playfulness and you can hear direct nods to their technique in recent tunes I’ve done like Super Tough and the pianos on Nasty. One of my prize possessions is Aphrodite’s second album nailed to my bedroom wall, signed by the man himself. You might say I’m a fan!"
I think that’s always shone through in your radio shows - you’re a fan of the music first and foremost...
"I’m quite an excitable person - you might have realised this by now! I get just as much of a thrill from being a fan as I do being producer or any type of artist. I’m always surprised when I meet peers who aren’t quite so enthused."
Yeah, I’m always gutted when I interview people who aren’t 'fans' so much and are a lot more dry about why they make the music they do...
"Why even make dance music if you’re in it for the money? The idea of doing it as a focused business objective is alien to me. Perhaps that’s to my detriment and why I’m not a millionaire now? It’s something I’ve always been proud of though.
"For instance, when I started at Radio 1, I knew they’d picked me because I’m me - not for broadcasting skills, because I didn’t have any! So I knew I shouldn’t try and be like a slick, gameshow host-style presenter, because that isn’t me. I just be me and make the most of every moment and treat every project I do as if it’s the last one.
"I want to look back over everything proudly and think, ‘Yes, I did my best on that’. The idea of making music that I don’t deeply love is mad. Every record I’ve ever put out is a piece of me and my personality."
You've done some crazy projects, too. Like a lot of the music for the 2012 Olympics, for example…
"That’s something I look back on and definitely think I did my best. It stems from my second album Wild Romance, which I made solely on classical instruments. A lot of people thought I was bonkers making it, but it was a very personal album and a passion project. I went mental on it, even more than usual. But it opened a lot of doors, including the Cambridge University debate about classical music with Stephen Fry. I was very active in that movement of classical and electronic music, so the Olympic committee got in touch to write the music for the big countdown in Trafalgar Square. Then I did the music for the Athletes Parade at the opening ceremony. It was mad: I was standing round the back of Buckingham Palace with a clipboard organising everything. Very surreal!"
Another thing you’ve done since we last spoke is get an astrophysics degree. It's pretty rare for established DJs to go off and study...
"The things I learned about the universe and the cosmos really changed my life! Everything we do is because of it. The phone you’re talking to me on now on works because of the laws of quantum mechanics; the reason you can access everything with your fingertips is through electromagnetism. The reason you don’t fall through the floor is the same reason stars shine, and the stars you see in the sky are actually solar systems. There’s 100 billion solar systems in the Milky Way alone, so if there’s a one in a billion chance of finding life in another solar system that would still mean there’s 100 other civilisations just in our own galaxy."
I like those odds! How did you stumble into this?
"Music went from being a hobby to becoming my entire life, so I needed a hobby and that became astrophysics. It’s nice to be asked about it, actually. When I got into it, I bored people silly. I couldn’t understand why people weren’t interested in it."
Care to blow our minds with some science for a grand finale?
"Ah, this is hard, because we’re on the phone and it’s much easier to illustrate with objects and graphs. But how about this: the universe is left-handed."
Yes! Big up lefties! Wait... what?
"Cool, isn’t it? It’s an example of chirality in organic molecules and originates from ultraviolet circularly polarized light (UVCPL) emissions from star-forming regions such as the Orion Nebula. Left-handed UVCPL is absorbed less readily by chiral amino acids than right-handed UVCPL, and since photon absorption causes destruction by light (photolysis) there's an excess of left-handed amino acids found not only in all life on Earth but in meteorites samples too.
"Anyway, it’s not for everyone, but I love this stuff. Don’t worry, I’ll save my black hole thermodynamics facts for another interview!"
Words: Dave Jenkins
Sweet Toy VIP by Kissy Sell Out is out now, and Badman VIP by Sirmo & Kissy Sell Out is out on 29 September, both on Stepper Man
Tags: Kissy Sell Out, San City High, Stepper Man, Olympics, Stephen Fry, astrophysics, Mickey Finn, Aphrodite, Robert Owens, house, electro, bassline, speed garage, Radio 1, Chromeo, Mark Ronson, Calvin Harris, Human League, Sugababes, Wittyboy, PVC, Official Nancie, Hoxton Whores, Sirmo, KSO, In New DJs We Trust, Kissy Club, Zeds Dead, Dillon Francis, Nero, Jack Beats, Gorgon City, Foamo